Love, Death + Robots & Storytelling Through Animation


A N A L Y S I S – T V  S H O W


Shudipto Dip


It needs no telling that the animation industry, being a potentially versatile one where storytelling has no limits, is largely dominated by Disney. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it compresses the medium significantly and conforms our minds into a unidimensional impression of the genre through repetitive style and structure. Snapping out of the Disney Princess tropes, they met significant success with creative stories like Coco and Inside out, but one thing that has exhausted connoisseurs by now is the animation style. That, along with strong existential themes, is why Love, Death, and Robots has met worldwide critical acclamation.

So, just how much does animation style matter? Every once in a while, we are blessed with the vivacious setup of stop-motion films like Corpse Bride or Fantastic Mr Fox. And the 3D animation style has been so overused by Disney and Pixar by now than any other film in 3D not produced by the studio is easily discernible, therefore catches our attention effortlessly. But is the wind of change in animation styles like these simply a device to capitalise on the availability of Disney and glue us to our couches? Or do they actually provide an intrinsic value? With the highly anticipated season 2 of Love, Death, and Robots released, we now have content to compare and know if a subliminal messaging is at play.

Automated Customer Service//The Dump

These two episodes have a stark contrast in character conditions, but not character designs. And they rubbed the exact character conditions in our faces within the first minute. And the sequencing is also polar: bad from the good in one, the opposite in the other. But both have a 3D animation based on the art style caricature that prepares us for what’s coming, not in a bad way. The amusing animation style in The Dump helped us digest the paradigm shift of tone easily. The purpose of such amusing, facially exaggerated, bobble-head looking characters in Automated Customer Service implied a possible paranoia as well as physical vulnerability — which played a role later. And it made us feel exactly what we needed to — white lies and black comedy.

Zima Blue//Ice

Zima Blue is easily one of the most profound episodes of season 1. And the production team repeated the same unique style with Ice of season 2. Zima Blue deals with an artist of the modernist movement. And it needs no telling that the setup is based on the privileged class, which is not the case for Ice. A 2D comic art based on the titular character mostly shaded in black served for the mystery and intimidation factor. It made something as despised in the entertainment industry as narrating feel not just empowering, in fact rather towering. A voiceover in a hard accent coming from the silhouette at the very start of Ice partially set that unforgettable mood of Zima Blue — roughness rather than intimidation. A decrease of the colour black in character designs set off a sharp contrast in dim shades, making up a futuristic noir that isn’t necessarily cyberpunk. Hence the need for generic spray-painted graffiti or unclean concrete jungle (which was there nevertheless) was nullified. The art style made both minimal modern art and intricate, electrifying extreme sport equally popping.

Hyperrealism

Season 1 had a total of 6 episodes that tried to look closer to life and a live-action one that easily stands out. Though the hyperrealism in season 2 fell flat at times, with half of its total episodes rendered in the same style. Animation was always used for its flexibility in exaggerating the action of the characters and telling a story. But when it imitates real life, by theory, that base goes away. Then the point of rendering it with motion-capture suits rather than just shooting with a camera becomes fatuous. Changing the character development, they could defy the norms of some of these episodes. Episode 2: Three Robots accomplished it too easily by not putting any human in the setup. But there’s a certain bit of brilliance in why they did it. Actions speak louder than words, which is why dialogues (especially expository ones) tend to become tedious and meaningless in animation. Actions, emotionally or humorously riveting, require an accurate portrayal of facial expressions. And the hyperrealism style hasn’t reached a point sophisticated enough to portray muscle movements vividly enough to pull off a Nicholas Cage render. If it does in the future, there is no point in keeping it animated anymore. Hence, actions might be off-putting too. Adding three different robots, one of which makes emoji faces portray actions a lot better without having to show the emotional standpoint of the characters in question. This further aids the cause of preserving the light-hearted nature of the episode even though the characters are supposed to blend with the artificial wastes of the post-apocalyptic setup. Episode 13: Lucky 13 keeps the risk of blatant delivery of dialogue for the shortcoming of the genre in mind and shifts it to voiceover narration — which is almost always more poetic than expository. This does not shift the attention to what’s being said and keeps the liveliness of the war and the mysterious aura of the inert object intact.

As for season 2, Episode 8: The Drowned Giant deals with explaining human nature by bringing in a larger-than-life character to the plot. Hence, the spot-on philosophy would not be intense enough with a different animation style. Plus, a very specific colour grading to portray the impulsive ambience through the setup is not fit for vibrant animations. Likewise, Episode 3: Pop Squad shared a colour palette with Blade Runner: 2049 as well as a paralleled final sequence. The cyberpunk genre was largely successful with hand-drawn works of art like Akira or Ghost in the Shell. This LD+R episode brought a change in the records by adding noir as well. A very subtle difference in character design — comparatively elongated body structures of the privileged – inferring artificiality (mostly presented by highlighting the opera singer) reinforces the disparity central to the plot.

Beyond the Aquila Rift//Snow in the Desert

Both Season 1 Episode 7: Beyond the Aquila Rift and Season 2 Episode 4: Snow in The Desert share the same purpose of hyperrealism in the plot – hostility. Both episodes deal with an eerie, unfriendly environment in landscapes we are familiar with but never witnessed physically. Thus, lifelike characters make us put ourselves in their place to make small attempts at feeling the environment, therefore intensifying the imminent dangers. Moreover, SITD rendered a realistic environment to illustrate texture, but with a slight lack of colour contrast — emphasising the roughness and sweat. And BTAR exploited the hyperrealism to make sure the metaphor packed a punch.

Where it failed

Not every episode told parts of the story through animation; not every episode had to. But some failed in delivering what they tried. Take Helping Hand, for instance. Yes, outer space is the same everywhere. But with the colour gradient and close-up frames, the episode was screaming Sandra Bullock’s Gravity from start to end. The word ‘inspired’ cannot make up for an unhealthy amount of resemblance. In All Through the House, Christmas lights and stop motion made us prepared for a deeply unsettling ambience like in Coraline. It was put off by one badly rendered character, which felt misplaced in the animation style of this episode. And Life Hutch fell right into the pit of hyperrealism where its animation might as well be live-action — trying to sell Michael B. Jordan’s star value for no relevance whatsoever emitted the same energy as Marvel, managing excuses to make Iron Man shed his helmet for the face value of Robert Downey Jr.

Not every episode told a story through animation, but some definitely had noteworthy and ground-breaking styles of animation: Sonnie’s Edge, The Witness, and Fish Night, to name a few. The industrial era savagery wouldn’t work with other styles in Good Hunting. And the stop motion with oil painting texture in The Tall Grass is equally irreplaceable. Animation isn’t exactly what we were missing in the quarantine with the DCAMU reboot, Soul or Invincible released. But with such unique, clever, vibrant, and thought-provoking existential portrayals, Love, Death, and Robots continue to be a delightful watch as it marks its territory as an imperative addition to the genre.

 


Shudipto Dip is a replicant with the emotional range of a labradoodle.

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